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May 13, 2004

   

UNDERGRADUATE AND PH.D. CANDIDATE JOIN FORCES
TO STUDY EFFECTS OF CHILDREN'S MOODS

Leslie Kurke
Tracy Hills '04 and Deanna Hamilton

Although a boost in mood improves adults' performance of many mental tasks, happiness may equip very young children with rose-colored glasses that reduce their accuracy in identifying the emotions of others. That's the finding of Tracy Hills '04 and Ph.D. student Deanna Hamilton, who collaborated on a research project that formed the basis of Hills' undergraduate thesis in psychology and will be incorporated into Hamilton's dissertation.

Hamilton and Hills have been working together for more than a year on a project that measures the impact of mood on children's performance of both cognitive and social-emotional tasks. Their experiments tested children between the ages of three and six at four tasks, two of which they classify as cognitive/creative and two of which they characterize as social/emotional. They tabulated and interpreted the data from the emotion-recognition experiment, which was designed by Hills, before analyzing the results of the other experiments, to allow Hills to present it in her thesis in time for her to graduate this week. Hamilton will continue work on the project for her dissertation, which she hopes to complete by next spring. Hills expects to keep in touch: "I've worked too hard on this project just to say goodbye at graduation," she says.

The study contributes to a growing new field called positive psychology. "For many years, clinical psychology has primarily concerned itself with why people suffer," Hamilton explains. "Positive psychology asks how and why people flourish and succeed."

Research has solidly established that people who are in a good mood perform better at a variety of cognitive tasks than people who are in a neutral or negative mood, "but most of this research has been done with adults and adolescents, not with very young children," Hamilton says. "It has also focused mostly on cognitive and some creative activity, but not on social or emotional tasks. So our research is new in both the ages of subjects and the range of activities it tests."

Hills and Hamilton were introduced by Associate Professor of Psychology Marc Schulz and began to design their study in January 2003. They mapped out an experiment protocol that involved inducing a good mood (by showing children a cheerful cartoon video) or a neutral mood (by showing them an educational video about trees). They then designed age-appropriate tasks to test the abilities they wanted to target. During the summer of 2003, they ran a pilot test involving about 30 subjects.

"We learned a lot," says Hamilton. "The social and emotional tasks had to be made more difficult. For the emotion-recognition task, we had been showing them photographs of the faces of children with very easy-to-read emotions. We had to add photos of adults whose facial expressions were subtler. And we found out that the mood induced by the video didn't last for a whole 30-minute session. In sessions that were half an hour, we needed more than one inducer."

In the emotion-recognition experiment designed by Hills, the students found that children who were in a good mood were actually less accurate at identifying the emotions of other people — especially anger — than were children in a neutral state. This result is different from those of similar studies performed with adults.

Hamilton will incorporate Hills' findings into her dissertation, along with her conclusions about experiments that measured the children's ability to solve social problems, to generate a variety of ideas about a topic in a short time, and to inhibit a simple, "automatic" response in order to follow complex instructions.

"It was great to work with Tracy," Hamilton says. "It means that I can add another dimension to my dissertation that I probably wouldn't have been able to include without her. And I got the benefit of a researcher who's really great with kids."

"For me," Hills says of the collaboration, "it was really interesting to see the whole research process — designing the protocols, submitting the proposal to the institutional review board that has to approve all research involving human subjects, finding the subjects, compiling the data. A lot of effort is involved." Hills is interested in pediatric psychology, and she plans to apply to graduate programs in clinical psychology in two years, following a research assistantship at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. There she'll be working on a study of humor therapy in pediatric cancer patients.

Hamilton will work on her dissertation next year as she serves an internship at the University of Pittsburgh's counseling center.

"I'd love to be able to combine the clinical therapy I do with teaching and research," Hamilton says. "And we have plenty of good models here of psychologists who are able to wear different hats."

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